ABB to automate bioplastics plant to help meet the growing global demand for sustainable materials

NatureWorks, a manufacturer of polylactic acid (PLA), a low-carbon bioplastic made from renewable agricultural resources, will automate their new, greenfield plant in Thailand, converting sugar cane to the polylactic acid (PLA) biopolymer, called Ingeo. ABB, a global technology company, will manage the automation.

The new plant in Thailand will ferment and distill plant-based sugars – in a process similar to making beer or wine – converting the sugars first to lactic acid, then lactide, and then polymerize them into Ingeo. In the new site, these three separate production processes will be fully integrated, resulting in significant improvements in energy and production efficiency. In addition, the integration of the fermentation phase will secure the supply of lactic acid. The Thailand facility will use sugarcane as feedstock and is set to produce 75,000 tons of sustainable plastic per year when fully operational. The anticipated projected startup for this greenfield facility is in the second half of 2024.

ABB’s scope of work is a two-part order including a FEED (front end engineering design) study followed by detailed automation project execution, with ABB acting as the Main Automation Contractor. ABB will deliver the hardware, software, control room design solutions, engineering, and site support to fully develop NatureWorks’ greenfield system. ABB’s distributed control system Ability System 800xA will maximize plant efficiency and reliability through automation. Leveraging this technology, ABB will integrate inputs from all key systems into one single user-friendly overview. As a result, operators will be able to utilize data insights from all areas of the plant, delivered in real time, to drive efficiency, reduce risk and ensure production optimization, the company says.

The project will apply State Based Controls (SBCs), enabling operators to take fewer interactions to start up a unit and reduce risk by having access to the right information at the right time. In addition, ABB’s automated engineering batch application tool will be implemented for this project.

Part of NatureWorks’ global expansion plan, the plant will help meet the growing global demand for sustainable materials. Bioplastics today represent less than 1% of all plastic produced globally but production is expected to grow over 260% between 2020 and 2026.

Ingeo, an material with unique properties that all begin with greenhouse gases, is an eco-friendly, biobased material used in a wide-range of plastic and fiber products from compostable food packaging – coffee capsules, tea bags, food containers – to 3D printing filament, diapers, and even refrigerator liners. Compared to traditional fossil-based polymers, manufacturing Ingeo produces approximately 80% less greenhouse gases and uses 52% less non-renewable energy, according to ABB.